[Warning: This post contains spoilers from Empire's series finale. Read at your own risk.]
That's a wrap on Empire. Pour one out for the iconic show that helped reshape the TV landscape, launched a successful spin-off starring Queen Latifah and consistently entertained with breakneck plot twists and high-stakes drama. It was the spiritual lovechild of Dynasty and King Lear, and we were obsessed.
Honing in on its central theme of family, the groundbreaking hip hop drama ended its illustrious six-year run with the Lyons standing firmly together and their previously strained relationships fully intact. The episode saw Lucious (Terrence Howard), a man who, for years, coveted his hip hop empire above his own family, willingly put his life on the line in order to protect his loved ones by taking on Damon Cross (Wood Harris) alone. Meanwhile, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who spent the season figuring out her who she was apart from Lucious and her lionized Cookie moniker, finally realized that she could be with Lucious without losing herself in the process. But perhaps the biggest takeaway for the Lyons is a lesson that took them six years to learn: Family, above all, is what's important. The episode culminated with the Lyon clan assembling to celebrate the premiere of Empire's biographical film based on Lucious' life and starring Hakeem (Bryshere Gray).
That meaningful ending is a happy medium for the show's creative team, who pieced together footage from episodes that were already filmed before production shut down early in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the planned series finale not filmed, producers crafted a new ending using footage from Episodes 18 and 19. According to showrunner Brett Mahoney, Episode 19 would have featured the film premiere along with "something crazy that was intended to happen at the end of that that we had actually filmed." But given the circumstances, Mahoney opted for a more satisfying ending.
"I had the feeling that if we wanted to end the family on a happy note and with the Lyons coming together, which was sort of like the feeling we were going for -- like family over empires and family coming together -- which would have been our theme in the actual finale. There's a piece of that, an idea that lived in the family coming together for the movie," he explained.
Still, the Empire showrunner remains hopeful about one day resuming filming to give fans the proper finale they originally intended. Whether that comes to fruition, though, remains to be seen. With most entertainment productions at a standstill as government officials continue to grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak, filming the series finale seems highly unlikely for now. But Mahoney hasn't ruled out other options. TV Guide spoke with the Empire boss about the pandemic's impact on the finale and how he still plans to give fans the closure they deserve. Mahoney also opened up about Empire's legacy and impact on the culture at large, and whether or not he thinks a spin-off is possible.
Do you think this episode provides closure for fans who followed the show for six seasons?Brett Mahoney: Well, it's not the way that we wanted to end, but I think it does provide some sort of closure in terms of the family coming together, and Lucious and Cookie coming together. That relationship is so important to the series and so what we have for the finale really focuses on the Lucious and the Cookie of it all. But we're not able to answer the questions that were set up throughout the season in terms of who shot Lucious and who blew up Cookie's car so those are still questions that are out there, [as well as] more definitive endings for the characters. Those are all the things that we hope to [address] one day if we are ever able to shoot our true series finale.
I guess you can't really talk about the original ending if there's still an option to film it.
Mahoney: Our hope and dream is that we'll film it, but if we get to the point where we're not able to film it, we'll do something to appease [the fans]. Whether it's releasing a script or doing some sort of a Zoom table read, something we'll hopefully be able to do if we can't actually film it to give the fans the actual closure we'd like them to have.
Despite everything that happened between Cookie and Lucious, they found their way back to each other. How important was it for you to at least, even if you couldn't get the ending you wanted right now, show them together in this final episode?
Mahoney: That was change for me and I know that there are some people that disagree. I mean, Empire is story about family and the family dynasty but, to me, it's also an epic love story. And so, the story really is about Lucious and Cookie despite all the drama and the differences they have between each other. It's about them finding their way back to [each other] and loving one another with respect.
I think some people are going to have feelings about that. Cookie's journey this season was figuring out who she was apart from Lucious and in this episode specifically, getting to the Loretha behind that tough Cookie exterior. So, do you think her decision to go back to Lucious conflicts with that or does it make sense for her?
Mahoney: To me, it made sense in terms of she's recognizing who she is, her strengths, her weaknesses. She's also looking at being the strength of Lucious and she's making the decision that she can love him. And because she's also recognizing the changes that he's made for her, she's now giving credit to that and saying that this man has changed for me and that I can love him. I can be Loretha, and I can be Cookie, and I can love this man.
This current Lucious is a lot more open about his feelings than the Lucious we met in Season 1.
Mahoney: It's very true and I think his journey was his admitting how much he [was] trying to be a better man for her and then, through the course of this season, also putting the family over Empire.
In that fight scene with Damon, Lucious uses his prosthetic leg to kill Damon. Was that the original plan to have him use his leg or were you considering other props? What happened there?
Mahoney: In all honesty, that is a Terrence Howard's brilliance. He is the one that came up with it. I got calls from the set and they were like, "Terence wants to use his prosthetic leg to kill Damon" and I was like, "Ugh... It could work or it could not work." And then I spoke to Terrence about it in terms of his intention and then it just made sense to me in that this is the thing that was almost seen as a weakness in him. This was something that Cookie had made fun of and then he turns around, in this final episode, and uses it to vanquish his enemy. I just felt like there were some crazy Empire poetry in that.
Getting back to the idea of the show being about family, you really did drive that home in this last episode, especially in the last moments with the Lyon clan coming together for this movie premiere. Where do you think the Lyon family goes from here?
Mahoney: I think that what they do is they realize that in each of their lives, they allow it to play out where it's not about Empire, it's about what is the truth of each of the Lyons. And they have their love and their family, and how they move forward in that way, prioritizing that versus Empire. So, none of them any longer put Empire first. It's all about their love for family.
One of the questions left in the air is where does Andre (Trai Byers) fits in all of this? The consensus was that it's better for him to step away from Empire but also, he needs to be there for his family.
Mahoney: I think Andre realizes that, possibly, Empire isn't the place for him and he can find happiness and wholeness outside of that and that doesn't mean abandoning his family. It just means that he doesn't need to be in Empire. And I think that's kind of what any of the Lyons could decide is fine. They reached the end because it's not about Empire, it's about family.
And then you have Hakeem, who ends the episode on a throne.
Mahoney: I think the lesson that Hakeem takes moving forward, and he actually had a line at one point that he's learned so much from playing his father in the movie. He realizes lots of the mistakes his father made in terms of prioritizing Empire over family, prioritizing Empire over the love of his life. So, Hakeem is also moving forward and making moves that don't necessarily see him in the Empire fold, but will allow him to pursue whatever his dreams are, which may or may not have to do with Empire.
I've heard that this might not necessarily be the end, that maybe the story can continue. Would you consider doing a spin-off series? Why or why not?
Mahoney: I think people are talking about it. I think the creators are talking about it and the network. With such an important show, and it has such an impact... I could imagine that if you can find the right property and the right in, the creators and the network would definitely want to pursue something. I'm not, but I can think that they would.
Who do you think should have their own spin-off?
Mahoney: People of course want to see the Lyons and where they continue, and I think any one of them you could [do that with]. I've always wanted to see what Bossy would look like if it was spun off, in a way. I just think that could be timely, just in terms of where we are, to have a female-run company in the entertainment world and what that would look like. Breaking the glass ceiling during the day and breaking backs at night. I think there are a lot of different directions you could go.
What are some of your favorite moments from the series and why do they stick out to you?Mahoney: I think that I've just been so privileged to have been able to have worked on the show and the storylines that depict culture, impact culture and educate culture. So the HIV positive storyline between Jamal and Kai and their parents and their wedding moment was very meaningful to me. Cookie's heart attack and how that sort of instructed African Americans to be more heart healthy is an important story to me. Andre and his whole bipolar story always is very important to me. I love the scene when it was revealed in the last weeks of the last dinner on Season four, when Andre was having a relationship with Pamela Rose, and then it was revealed to him that she was an imaginary person, a figment of his mind. I just thought that was a great scene between Andre, Lucious, and Cookie. I just think it's so great that the show depicted culture, but it also in some places, it led and it educated us and highlighted things that the community was really going through. And I think it's special in that way.
What do you hope Empire's legacy will be? What do you want people to remember the show for?
Mahoney: Well, I think that the legacy of Empire is clear in terms of it is groundbreaking television and then, I think, groundbreaking industry-wise to have this majority, people of color cast be such a huge success that everyone wanted to see. It just also showed that a show with an African American cast, dealing with African American issues, could be universally loved and you can also make a lot of money. I think it paved the path for a lot of the diversity we're seeing in film and television now. It created a lot of careers in terms of writers who came from the show and directors who directed on the show and costume designers and DPs. I like that so many of the writers from the show have gone on to have their own show. So, it's just impacted the industry on all sides, behind the camera and in front of the camera.
We don't really talk about that enough, the behind-the-scenes impact of the show.
Mahoney: Absolutely, because I've worked on many shows and I've never worked on a show like this. We've had so many people of color as directors, as writers, as DPs, who were so talented. The talent was out there but just weren't recognized until this show and now they've gone off and had great careers. So I think that's amazing.
With everything you've learned from Empire, how do you think you'll apply that to future jobs?
Mahoney: For me, I've just been so blessed to have this opportunity to work with so many of these brilliant people and I just hope to be able to work with them again.
Empire is streaming on Hulu.